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The Race of Sound: Listening, Timbre, and Vocality in African American Music

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In The Race of Sound Nina Sun Eidsheim traces the ways in which sonic attributes that might seem natural, such as the voice and its qualities, are socially produced. Eidsheim illustrates how listeners measure race through sound and locate racial subjectivities in vocal timbre—the color or tone of a voice. Eidsheim examines singers Marian Anderson, Billie Holiday, and Jimmy In The Race of Sound Nina Sun Eidsheim traces the ways in which sonic attributes that might seem natural, such as the voice and its qualities, are socially produced. Eidsheim illustrates how listeners measure race through sound and locate racial subjectivities in vocal timbre—the color or tone of a voice. Eidsheim examines singers Marian Anderson, Billie Holiday, and Jimmy Scott as well as the vocal synthesis technology Vocaloid to show how listeners carry a series of assumptions about the nature of the voice and to whom it belongs. Outlining how the voice is linked to ideas of racial essentialism and authenticity, Eidsheim untangles the relationship between race, gender, vocal technique, and timbre while addressing an undertheorized space of racial and ethnic performance. In so doing, she advances our knowledge of the cultural-historical formation of the timbral politics of difference and the ways that comprehending voice remains central to understanding human experience, all the while advocating for a form of listening that would allow us to hear singers in a self-reflexive, denaturalized way.


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In The Race of Sound Nina Sun Eidsheim traces the ways in which sonic attributes that might seem natural, such as the voice and its qualities, are socially produced. Eidsheim illustrates how listeners measure race through sound and locate racial subjectivities in vocal timbre—the color or tone of a voice. Eidsheim examines singers Marian Anderson, Billie Holiday, and Jimmy In The Race of Sound Nina Sun Eidsheim traces the ways in which sonic attributes that might seem natural, such as the voice and its qualities, are socially produced. Eidsheim illustrates how listeners measure race through sound and locate racial subjectivities in vocal timbre—the color or tone of a voice. Eidsheim examines singers Marian Anderson, Billie Holiday, and Jimmy Scott as well as the vocal synthesis technology Vocaloid to show how listeners carry a series of assumptions about the nature of the voice and to whom it belongs. Outlining how the voice is linked to ideas of racial essentialism and authenticity, Eidsheim untangles the relationship between race, gender, vocal technique, and timbre while addressing an undertheorized space of racial and ethnic performance. In so doing, she advances our knowledge of the cultural-historical formation of the timbral politics of difference and the ways that comprehending voice remains central to understanding human experience, all the while advocating for a form of listening that would allow us to hear singers in a self-reflexive, denaturalized way.

30 review for The Race of Sound: Listening, Timbre, and Vocality in African American Music

  1. 5 out of 5

    Etienne RP

    This Voice Sounds Black I close my eyes and I can hear Billie Holiday’s black voice filling the room. Her voice, described as “a unique blend of vulnerability, innocence, and sexuality,” speaks of a life marked by abandonment, drug abuse, romantic turmoil, and premature death. Hearing Billie Holiday sing the blues also summons her black ancestors’ history of enslavement, hard labor, racial segregation, and disfranchisement. I can imagine the black singer, cigarette in hand, eyes closed, bearing t This Voice Sounds Black I close my eyes and I can hear Billie Holiday’s black voice filling the room. Her voice, described as “a unique blend of vulnerability, innocence, and sexuality,” speaks of a life marked by abandonment, drug abuse, romantic turmoil, and premature death. Hearing Billie Holiday sing the blues also summons her black ancestors’ history of enslavement, hard labor, racial segregation, and disfranchisement. I can imagine the black singer, cigarette in hand, eyes closed, bearing the sorrow of shattered hopes and broken dreams. But wait. I open my eyes and what I see on the screen is a seven-year-old Norwegian named Angelina Jordan performing on the variety show Norway’s Got Talent. Her imitation of Billie Holiday is almost perfect: pitch, rhythm, intonation, and vocal range correspond to her model down to the smallest detail. Here is a combination of a child’s frail body and the sound of an iconic singer that we usually hear through the narrative of her unfortunate life and perceived ethnicity. Impersonations of African-American singers can be problematic: as Nina Eidsheim notes, they bring to mind a past history of blackface minstrelsy and racist exploitation, and a present still marked by cultural misappropriation and racial stereotypes. But her point is elsewhere: by assigning a race or ethnicity to the sound of a voice, we commit a common fallacy that helps reproduce and essentialize the notion of race. We hear race where, in fact, it isn’t. Hearing race where it isn’t Do black voices sound different? Biologically speaking, it makes no sense to assign a racial identity to the sound of a voice. Vocal timbre is determined by the diameter and length of the vocal tract and the size of the vocal folds, neither of which are affected by race or ethnicity. These components vary with gender, age, and enculturation into “communities of language and speech.” The training of the voice, like the training of the body, affects the development of vocal tissue, mass, musculature, and ligaments. Training or “entrainment” takes place both formally and informally, involving vocal practices such as speaking, singing, acting, imitating, crying, or laughing. We grow up into a certain voice tone, and this vocal timbre comes to designate an essential part of our identity. Through voice, we perform who we are or who we want to be. Voice is a collective, cultured performance, unfolding over time, and situated within a culture. Sociology can help us explain how voice becomes the way it sounds. Drawing from his observation of soldiers in World War I, Marcel Mauss described how people in different societies are brought up to walk, stand, sit, or squat in very different ways. Similarly, Pierre Bourdieu showed in La Distinction how the tone of one’s voice, the habit to speak from the tip of one’s mouth or from the depth of one’s throat, is influenced by social class and status and correlates with other social practices such as eating or engaging in cultural activities. Nina Eidsheim extends these observations on bodily techniques and cultural styles to the ways everyday vocal training is manifested corporeally and vocally. More importantly, she shows that voice does not arise solely from the vocalizer; it is created just as much within the process of listening. Disciples of the Greek philosopher Pythagoras used to listen to their master from behind a veil in order to better concentrate on his teachings. If an “acousmatic sound” designates a sound that is heard without its originating cause being seen, the “acousmatic question” is raised when one asks who is the person we hear singing or talking without seeing him or her. It is assumed we can know a person’s identity through the sound made by his or her voice: using aural cues, we can guess the age, gender, and ethnicity of the person with only a limited margin of error. From this on, we infer that the voice can give us access to interiority, essence, and unmediated identity of the person. To have a voice is to have a soul, and to hear a voice is to access the soul. Nina Eidsheim shows that this belied of voice as an expression of the true self is based on an illusion: the listener projects onto the voice an individual essence and a racialized identity of his or her own making. In order to dispel that illusion, and to debunk the myth of essential vocal timbre, she offers three postulates that sustain her analysis of voice as critical performance practice. Voice is not singular; its is collective. Voice is not innate; it is cultural. Voice’s source is not the singer; it is the listener. Armed with these three basic tenets, she provides many examples by which we answer to the “acousmatic question” and project a racialized identity on a voice we consider as “black.” National schools of singing Classical vocal artists undergo intense training, much of which is dedicated to learning to hear their own voices as the experts hear them. Classical vocal pedagogy is built upon the assumption that it is possible to construct timbre, and national schools of singing have different ways to shape a voice into a distinctive artistic performance. The difference between classical renditions of the same song, Lied or opera in Paris, London, Vienna, or Moscow has nothing to do with the race or place of birth of the singer and is entirely based on the way the singer was schooled and trained to perform. For instance, as Eidsheim notes, the French school of singing insists on the “attaque,” a very strong beginning that is created by a powerful inward thrust of the abdomen. The result is a held sound that is slightly above pitch, with a pushed and sharp-sounding phonation. Singing the French repertoire requires not only a familiarity with the numerous French liaison rules and constant vowel flow within and between words, which a French lyric diction coach can provide, but also a mastery of the attaque and other singing techniques that the French classical tradition has developed. But classical voice teachers also believe each voice has to sound “healthy,” “authentic,” and “natural.” This is where race comes in: most teachers, particularly in the North American context, believe they can always tell the ethnicity of the singer by his or her vocal timbre, and train their students to cultivate what they call their “ethnic timbre” or “unique color.” An ethic of multiculturalism has penetrated vocal pedagogy: some specialists go so far as to criticize ignorant teachers who have not been exposed to a variety of racial timbres for “homogenizing” their students’ voices. Making racial judgments on voice becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy: for performers, teachers, and listeners alike, voice begins to be heard through racial filters and categories. For most of their history, opera houses in the United States have been exclusively white. Desegregating classical music took time and effort, and black singers had to overcome many obstacles and prejudices. Segregation prohibited African American singers from taking lessons with white teachers or singing in integrated contexts. Those who performed classical music had to share the same spaces and the same programs with the minstrel repertoire, burlesque shows, and negro spirituals. It was difficult, if not impossible, for those performers to advance their careers without reinforcing stereotypes. The first African American singers to perform classical repertoire for large interracial audiences drew a great deal of attention to their blackness. They were given nicknames such as “the black swan” or “the black Patti,” and their voices described as “husky, musky, smoky, misty,” retaining their “savage character” and imbued with the “sorrow of their race.” A surge of African American operatic divas triumphed on the stage during the 1970s and 1980s, breaking the “Porgy and Bess curse” that had relegated their predecessors to singing only a limited part of the repertoire. But even now, singers do not come to the operatic musical tradition on an equal footing. There is resistance toward casting African American tenors as romantic lead characters, and also at creating interracial romances portrayed on stage. It is easier for African Americans to succeed as baritones or basses because the roles written for these vocal types are typically villains. Visual blackness is projected onto auditory timbre, resulting in the perception of sonic blackness. The world of opera is based on the willing suspension of disbelief: the tenor may be too fat, the soprano dowdy and old, and yet the audience accepts what is on stage as a plausible fiction for the sake of enjoyment. But what if Othello isn’t black, or if the Romeo and Juliet couple is interracial? Projections of identity Audiences “hear” race when they see a black person singing; they also perceive gender and other markers of identity. It is often believed that a feminine voice is higher in pitch than a masculine one. In fact, there is a considerable area of overlap between male and female voices. And timbre plays a key role in the gendered reading of voice: it is how voices are colored and timbrally mediated that determines whether they are perceived as male or female. Nina Eidsheim illustrates the importance of audiences’ projections of gender categories by taking up the life of Jimmy Scott, an artist who defied categorization. Scott didn’t fit the model of the African American male jazz artist. He was born with a hormonal condition that prevented his voice from changing at puberty. The condition also stopped Scott’s body from growing after the age of twelve. “Little Jimmy Scott” achieved early commercial success but then suffered from a long period of oblivion and was rediscovered by audiences and the music world when he reached old age. Although he always described himself as “a regular guy,” he transcended gender distinctions, thus becoming uncanny, transgressive, and ripe for projection, misidentification, and dismissal as burlesque or play. On many occasions, record covers didn’t feature his picture or give credit to his artistry, and his “neutered” voice was detached from any particular gendered body. When he did appear under his own name, his unique identity was doubled by identities and significations not his own. He was perceived as a masculine woman, a homosexual, a transsexual, or a freak. Listeners participated in the co-creation of Scott’s voice and overall gender identity by projecting familiar stereotypes onto a complex artist. Audiences project a gendered and racialized identity onto a voice, thereby changing the perception of the performer’s artistry. But racializing voice is not reserved for the human voice: the popular discourse about the “race of sound” is equally present in the digital realm, where voice is converted into zeros and ones. Nina Eidsheim examines the case of the vocal synthesis software Vocaloid that enables songwriters to generate singing by simply typing the lyrics and music notes of their composition, then choosing a “vocal font” to interpret their tune. While Vocaloid is far from the first voice synthesis program, it was the first specifically created as a commercial, consumer-oriented music product. Fan-based communities formed around the voice characters that the software enabled and that were given Christian names such as LOLA and LEON or MIRIAM by the producing company Yamaha. But while LOLA was marketed as a black soul singer’s voice and used samples from a Jamaican artist, users didn’t hear her voice as “black.” Instead, the sound character was described as “a British singer with a Japanese accent” who “lisps like a Spaniard,” and the use of the vocal font fell mostly outside the register of soul music. Vocaloid-created music feeds into YouTube channels with anime character illustrations, even though the original font characters have been “retired” and are no longer commercially available. The anime genre allows for a post-racial representation of facial traits, immersed in an Asian imaginary of misty eyes and colorful hair. Subsequent Vocaloid characters such as Hatsune Miku have transformed into “platforms people can build on,” and their hologram projections are displayed in live concerts where cosplay fans don the attire of their favorite characters. The genie has definitely escaped the racial box its creators designed for it. I have a dream The Race of Sound is built on a strong assumption: voice in itself is neither black nor white, and the projection of race takes place in the ear of the beholder as much as it is shaped by the entrainment of the vocalist into speaking or singing communities. The perpetuation of racialized vocal timbre goes a long way in explaining the entrenched nature of structural racism in our societies. As Nina Eidsheim underscores, “For every time that Holiday is heard as and reduced to the archetypal tragic black woman, people are turned away from jobs or housing opportunities based on reductions of their voices to assumed nonwhite identities.” But judging about the nature of voice goes much deeper and is based on fundamental beliefs about sound and listening. We practice the “cult of fidelity” by assuming that sound and vocal timbre are stable and knowable, and we project onto the sonic world fixed categories that shape our perception and representation of what we hear. Therefore, to debunk myths about race as an essential category, one must deconstruct the way we think about sound, music, and listening. This will not only allow us to become more enlightened listeners, but also uphold the status and skills of sound performers. More than stereotypes about the tragic lives of black women, it was style and technique that allowed Billie Holiday to bring dignity, depth, and grandeur to her performances. Understanding vocal timbre as an expression of skill, artistry, and communicative intention will help us appreciate the performance of great artists by judging them not by the color of their skin but by the content of their creative ability.

  2. 4 out of 5

    Ashley

    ABSOLUTELY AMAZING.

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